Villa draw 1-1 at Leicester in the Carabao Cup semi-final. Dave Woodhall watches with pleasure.
Anyone old enough to have watched Yes Minister will remember that when Sir Humphrey didn’t like any of his supposed boss’s ideas he would call them ‘interesting’ or ‘brave’. Football managers don’t have advisors, so there wasn’t anyone to say the same of Dean Smith’s team when it was announced ahead of the game with Leicester.
Smith said that he had no forwards to call on, which was why he put out what seemed on paper to be a very odd 3-7-0 formation. It raised a few eyebrows, although the surprising line-up might have worked to Villa’s favour – and going into the game with a depleted squad against one of the form teams of the Premier League, we certainly needed all the help we could get.
Whether it was luck, good judgement or divine inspiration, Villa came out of the first leg of this semi-final with a result that few could have anticipated. I don’t like going down the road of plucky underdogs doing ever so well against the big boys, but that’s what tonight was all about. Villa’s thrown-together side may not have matched Leicester in terms of possession or chances, but what they did do was to fight for everything. Right from the off there was a tenacity about the team that we’ve not witnessed too often this season, and which makes you wonder why they can’t play at this level every week.
Frederic Guilbert put Villa into the lead from an Anwar El Ghazi cross, Enri Konsa hit the bar and Villa’s half-time lead was well deserved. Of course, there was little chance of the team being able to hold out as well during the second half as they had in the first. To state the obvious, the home side were able to bring on substitutes that were as good as anything they started the game with, while Villa’s bench was more suited to the early rounds of this competition.
Eventually Leicester’s pressure paid off, with another unenforced error leading to an equaliser. But, and this is the most important thing to take from the evening, with everyone in the ground and watching on TV expecting a capitulation from then on, Villa redoubled their efforts and ensured that they saw the rest of the game out with no further problems.
It was a memorable night for a few players, but particular credit to Orjan Nyland, who stepped into the breach created by Tom Heaton’s injury and didn’t put a foot, or glove, wrong. The two other big performers were the one you’d expect to step up – Tyrone Mings yet again showed that he’s on the way to be spoken about in the same breath as the Southgate/Evans/Mellberg level of past Villa central defenders while Jack Grealish not only has the talent to be in the England side, he’s beginning to show the leadership qualities to captain it.
Leicester must still be comfortably odds-on favourites to get to Wembley, and that’s perfectly understandable. After all, in any normal season they’d be in with a good shout of winning the league while Villa would probably be grateful to be guaranteed seventeenth. But while I’ll concede a lot of points about football, I’m absolutely resolute in my belief that a packed Villa Park under lights is one of the great arenas in football, and there are times when the fates combine and magic happens there.
Before then we’ve still got some important league games to get through. Manchester City on Sunday will be another stiff test, another team who man for man should be able to beat the Villa without too much effort. But if we can summon up the same determination we got this evening, anything can happen.